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Canada at the Games

After a slow start to the Beijing Games — no medals in the first seven days — Canadian athletes rallied to finish with 18 medals — six more than Athens in 2004, and four more than Sydney in 2000.

After a slow start to the Beijing Games — no medals in the first seven days — Canadian athletes rallied to finish with 18 medals — six more than Athens in 2004, and four more than Sydney in 2000. We’re still shy of the 22 medals we won in Atlanta in 1996 (with a heartbreaking 11 fourth place finishes to lament) but it feels good to be moving up again.

Still, while 2008 was an improvement, we ranked 14 th on the total medal list (19 th for gold medals) behind several countries with smaller populations, less wealth, and less infrastructure for developing athletes. Admittedly, most of those developing countries don’t have our divided focus on winter and summer sports, but it’s something to consider with Canada snow-free better than half the year.

Australia has about 12 million fewer people than Canada, yet they ranked fifth in the overall medal count and sixth for gold medals.

The Ukraine ranked 11 th for gold medals and 10 th overall, despite the fact that their GDP per capita is about one sixth of Canada’s.

Romania has 10 million fewer people and less than a third of our Gross Domestic Product per capita, but finished the Games with one more gold medal than Canada.

Jamaica, a country with about 1/14 th of our population and a fifth of our per capita GDP, earned six gold medals to Canada’s three. Kenya finished with five gold medals, and 14 total medals.

A look at the rankings shows that you don’t need to be a wealthy nation to succeed at the Olympics, or have a massive population. Excellence does not develop better in totalitarian countries like China where children are recruited to sports at a young age, or in capitalist countries like the U.S. that rewards athletes with millions of dollars. Countries that host the Games do get a boost as they do focus more funding on sports, but that didn’t stop Russia — almost 30 years without a Games — from placing third in Beijing.

I’m guessing that medals have more to do with culture than with anything else.

Which begs the question: Can Canada really, truly compete with the rest of the world in any sport we see fit? Even in sports we only seem to care about every four years when the Olympics roll around?

Somewhere down the line we have to face the fact that as a nation we are simply not that fit. We are not a nation of athletes.

Across the country we’ve either cut physical education programs at elementary schools and high schools, or made them optional for students. We’ve killed the Canada Fitness Program, track and field days, after school sports programs, intramural sports leagues.

We do not give our athletes post-secondary scholarships like they do in the U.S., which is a huge part of the reason why Americans excel in such a diverse range of sports. Rules also ensure that equal funding must go to women’s sports, hugely increasing participation for female athletes in that country.

More Canadians are overweight or obese than ever, a product of watching too much television — like the TV-friendly Olympics — and spending less time doing sports ourselves.

This reality costs us billions a year in health care costs. It probably contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere because most people are too lazy to walk or bike to the corner store. It also reduces our productivity, as studies show that fit people are generally happier and harder working.

We invite people to be more active, to eat better, to participate in sports, but we don’t reward people who take care of themselves. The federal tax credit for kids in sports is a good step, but maybe adults should get tax deductions for gym memberships and league fees to recognize the money we save our health care system.

While the Olympics are an ideal of fitness that is unattainable for most, there’s a reason enrolment in triathlons spiked across Canada after its inclusion in the 2000 Games, and why there’s always a rush to register kids for swimming, soccer, gymnastics after an Olympics — athletes inspire, even when they’re not winning medals.

Years ago Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee decided to focus their limited funding on fewer athletes, the ones they felt had the best chances of making the podium based on their world rankings. They created a tougher set of qualifying standards than the International Olympic Committee, and as a result some athletes that had technically qualified for the Games, like our marathon team, didn’t go to Beijing, eliminating the chance they might get lucky, post personal bests, or just inspire other Canadians to be more active.

What we haven’t wrapped our heads around is that it’s incredibly hard in most sports just to qualify for the Games, and that being in the top 20 or 30 in a world with six billion people is actually pretty special.

Instead of wringing our hands every four years about our low medal production, maybe we should celebrate the fact that our athletes can do so well in a country where hockey still grabs sports headlines through the summer months, and the average person can’t run 5 km. We do the best we can with what we have to work with.